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15 October 2014
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Memories of wartime Gosport

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Mr John Withall, Mrs V Withall
Location of story: 
Gosport
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4435427
Contributed on: 
12 July 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Elaine Stewart of Uckfield Community Learning Centre, a volunteer from BBC Southern Counties Radio on behalf of Mr J R Withall and has been added to the site with his permission. Mr J R Withall fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

I was born on 25 October 1941 at 24 Clifton Gardens, Hillingdon, Middlesex. The Second World War was into its third year, my mother Violet, had been living in Portsmouth which was regularly targeted by German bombers and after a narrow escape in an air raid went to live with her brother, Ernest Stone and his family in a small backwater in Uxbridge. My father was in the Royal Engineers in North Africa and two days earlier had taken part in the battle that was to become the turning point of the War, El-Alamein.

Six weeks later, my mother brought me to the South Coast and for a few weeks lived at Richmond Road, Gosport and thence to a rented house that was to become my home. Dunkeld Road formed one of a maze of roads on the outskirts of the town. Its situation with the top end of Portsmouth Harbour on one side and a joint Royal Navy/Royal Air Force airfield on the other and almost adjacent to an Army base at the old Palmerston defence fort, Fort Brockhurst seem to have been the last place anyone wanted to set up home and bring up a new baby.

However, properties were not easy to find and we moved into number 38, a terraced house near the only bend and gas lamp in the road. Opposite was a grass area, one end of the road had been demolished by a land mine dropped in an earlier air raid. A photograph in the book “Gosport Goes to War” by Lesley Burton shows the devastation the explosion caused. I of course, was oblivious to this at the time. On the 26th June 1942, I was baptized at St. Johns Church, in the nearby parish of Forton, not Elson our local church, a nice vicar at Forton I believe! The church building was a corrugated iron affair near the recreation ground, the proper church being another victim of the raids. My Godmother was my Aunty Kath, wife of one of Mum’s brothers, Stan, serving in the Royal Navy.

My mother took a job at the Royal Naval Armament Depot, Priddy Hard, leaving me to be looked after and fed. I still can’t eat cheese late at night!! A radio celebrity Dorothy Squires worked with Mum for a while. Many years later when researching my family history, I discovered that my grandfather John Withall had worked there during the First World War.

Mice and rats were a problem, no doubt the bombed buildings gave them good nesting sites. We had a tabby cat for a while, but it was found asleep on my face and mother felt that it was not safe to keep it. A new home was found for it. I recall my mother and Mrs Horsey and I, standing outside the back door, watching a rat running up and down the garden, eventually a neighbour coming home from his allotment, leant over the fence and dispatched it with the prongs of his garden fork.

In 1944, D Day approached and Gosport became a very large parking area for all kinds of military vehicles. Dunkeld Road became a very interesting place for a small boy, lorries, tanks, bren-carriers D.U.K.W.’s, I visited them all and I was later informed did very well for sweets and pocket money. I think the latter went towards the household accounts. Soliders arrived and were billeted at each house. In those days front rooms were kept for use on high days and holidays, they were put to use as bedrooms for the lucky ones, the others slept in the front gardens. The troops often stayed for one night and when I woke in the morning, no trace remained of their visit. Not for long however, another convoy would take their place and the pattern continued to be repeated. One morning, I was in the front room of Mrs. Horsey’s house when a fleet of dark blue ambulances with large red crosses entered the road, often referred to as “Blood tubs” by the adults, the arrival of these vehicles had a subduing effect on everybody. Their presence created depression on the road’s inhabitants, luckily they were only there for a few hours. Looking back with an adult’s eyes, the ambulances must have given rise to all sorts of worries to the mainly female population, their loved ones were away fighting for the country and the ambulances must have given rise to all sorts of worries to the mainly female population, their loved ones were away fighting for the country and the ambulances must have brought home to them what a precarious situation they were in.

Then, one day, everyone was happy, flags appeared on the houses, tables and chairs were put in the road. V.E. day had arrived , I heard fireworks for the first time and the adults danced to the “Lambeth Walk”. It did not seem too long before another party took place, V.J. Day, the war was over, my cousin Maureen was with us and I have a photograph taken outside the house, mainly mothers and children with Maureen and Daphne Chamberlain, one of our neighbours holding the large letters V and J at the back of the group.

Not long after, I was dressed in my best clothes and told to sit on the garden wall, I distinctly remember Mrs. Neal’s son John, calling out “He’s coming down the road Mrs. Withall”, a solider carrying a kit bag was walking down the road. It was my father whom I had never seen. My only contact with him had been by letters and by photograph, kissed each night after I had said my prayers. I was given sweets wrapped in coloured paper which when smoothed out and held up to the light delighted me. They came from Italy. I was shown photographs which as I write I still have. A collection of postage stamps from North Africa and Europe fascinated me, pictures on them of Hitler and Mussolini. These stamps have long since vanished. I remember being shown a large group of men in uniform marching off the Gosport ferry, German prisoners of war I was told, I kept well away. Bomb sites were much in evidence and made wonderful playgrounds for children as did the redundant air raid shelters.

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